Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Review: Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (2012 anime)

[I will spoil large portions of the series, right up to the end.]

From the first scene where a geriatric cult-leader intoxicates his congregation by shedding white petals from his skin, we know we’re in for a weird ride. Fujiko Mine is pulp, but not trash; trippy, but not unhinged; 1970s infused, but not regressive.

We follow Fujiko Mine, cat-burglar, whose tools are deception and seduction, and whose only master is herself. Or is she? She disguises herself as a cult-leader’s wife, as mafia don’s best girl, as the governess for a royal family, as a teacher in an all-girls boarding school, but beneath these masks is there a face, or another mask? A mask not even Fujiko knows of? And who are these gentlemen in owl masks?

This show has two sections: an episodic beginning and a sequential end. There are bread crumbs of the main story arc in the stand-alone episodes, but they feel disposable. For instance, Fujiko is unconscious, and her dreams foreshadow the grand narrative, but have no bearing on the episode’s plot. Sparing some minor thematic and character through-lines, this show feels like two separate seasons. Not a bad thing, necessarily. However, as Yamamoto had only thirteen episodes, I wish she gave the grand narrative more space.

The stand-alone episodes are shots of neo-retro thrills. But they are not mere pastiche, not merely re-treading stock narratives. Fujiko Mine does retell stock narratives, but subverts them. We have the bodyguard-tempted-by-the-boss’-girl story, but from the girl’s POV, who has ulterior devices on the body guard. We get The Phantom of the Opera, retold as a tale of female agency. And, in case you couldn’t tell what era the series was evoking, it drops us into a war between ‘Yamerica’ and ‘Runninia’. This is a show where an ersatz-Cuban missile crisis is the monster-of-the-week.

Some of these episodes focus too much on other Lupin III characters. This is The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, so why are the second and third episodes about Goemon and Jigen? Surely in a character-centric spin-off you focus on her. Had this series more episodes, a few diversions would not harm it. But this series has thirteen episodes, and to devote a sixth of them to characters who are inessential to the plot, seems wasteful.

The second half contains the grand narrative, an origin story for Fujiko Mine. Covertly, a pharmaceutical company has been brainwashing young girls, of whom Fujiko seems to have been one of. And all the chemists wear owl masks. And it may have something to do with that drug-skinned cult leader from episode one.

I said this arc is an origin story, but that’s not true. The arc seems to promise an origin, an explanation of Fujiko Mine, a root to her persona. Right until the climax it seems the series has given her one: the owls brainwashed Fujiko, then let her free to see what would happen; thus her life of amorality and casual sex. A half-baked origin. As though only trauma could lead to hedonism. But then comes the twist – the brainwashing only made Fujiko suspect she was brainwashed. She was as much Fujiko Mine before as after. Rather than being a broken bird, Fujiko Mine is Fujiko Mine; she is Fujiko Mine because she is Fujiko Mine, a woman of her own creation. The series doesn’t make it a tragedy that she is who she is.

Though the themes intrigue, the series can state them too bluntly. Take episode nine: an artist has full-bodied-tattooed a girl, and groomed her into an art installation. Fujiko wants her dead. Metaphorically, the painted woman is Fujiko, moulded (it seems) by forces out of her control. She is also Fujiko from a metafictional perspective, an archetypical sex-symbol created by a male author. Fujiko wants to destroy this symbol of her oppression. Some sentiments are better symbolised than said. Symbolised, they are felt to be true; said, they are cringing platitudes. Lupin III literally says, ‘You want to kill yourself.’ The climatic confrontation with the villain is little better. It does subvert the audience’s expectations – but through exposition. Ultimately it’s just four people standing in a room telling us the twist.

Aesthetically, the series is the kind of 70s chic that could only exist after the 70s. After decades of distillation we are left with this essence of camp-cool. Jazz plays over lavish, deep-focus compositions and smooth animation. The camp keeps the series from self-seriousness. The show has insightful things to say, and so easily could have become po-faced. But with its tongue firmly in its cheek, it can never take itself too seriously. It’s a bathetic scene when Lupin III’s hard-boiled ruminations are interrupted by an owl man.
The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is a stylish adventure. Weird yet restrained, with something say, as well. Have a watch.

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